Friday, 20 November 2009

Buddhist Morality and the Two Standpoints

Buddhism presents us with a particular orientation in the world. Another word for this broad sense of orientation in the world is cosmology. It seems that what unites Buddhist throughout history and geography is this shared cosmology: a cosmology in which we find “an ethically oriented “samsaric” cosmology coexist[ing] with an ethically oriented “Buddhic” cosmos brought into being by the achievements and teachings of the Gautama Buddha.” (1)

What that means is that the Buddhist, starting with the historical Buddha himself 2500 years ago, sees the cosmos from two standpoints (to borrow Kantian language). The first standpoint is normal everyday life, dominated by the eight worldly conditions (aṭṭha lokadhammā): gain and loss, fame and disrepute, praise and blame, pleasure and pain. But the Buddha elucidated (we could say introduced but that would be incorrect) a path to freedom from all of these, or at least freedom from the “hedonic treadmill” of craving that goes with the former and the mental anguish that tends to accompany the latter.

This “Buddhic” or awakened standpoint is said to be one of perfect mental clarity, understanding of the “true nature” of all things and thus freedom from getting upset with life’s natural ebb and flow. The Buddha and his awakened followers, the arahats, still ate, slept, and had illnesses and died. Yet the difference between them and the unawakened has often been described both in terms of what they lacked, (greed, hatred, delusion) and what they had in terms of simple awareness along the lines of: “when they ate they were aware of themselves eating, when they walked they were aware of themselves walking, when they felt pain they were aware of feeling pain.”

Thus we find the two very different standpoints within Buddhism. Scholars who accuse Buddhism of being overly pessimistic and world or life-denying tend to look only at the former, “samsaric” perspective,(2) and those who find Buddhism to be overly dry and detached have probably only been exposed to the latter, “Buddhic” perspective.(3) A subtle example of the supposed tension between the two perspectives is found in a recent work by Donald Swearer. We begin with the canonical account of the Buddha just after his awakening: (4)
Enough with teaching the Dharma [this is the Buddha thinking to himself]
That even I found hard to reach;
For it will never be perceived
By those who live in lust and hate.

Those dyed in lust, wrapped in darkness
Will never discern this abstruse Dharma
Which goes against the worldly stream,
Subtle, deep, and difficult to see.
"Fortunately," writes Swearer, "Brahma Sahampati intercedes on behalf of the world by pleading with the Buddha: "The world will be lost, the world will perish, since the mind of the Tathagata, accomplished and fully enlightened, inclines to inaction rather than teaching the Dharma." Upon hearing Brahma's plea, the Blessed One "out of compassion for all beings surveyed the world with the eye of a Buddha" and decided to teach the supreme truth he had attained in his enlightenment."

Swearer concludes that, "The story demonstrates that although priority is given to the wisdom of enlightenment, the most complete expression of Buddhahood includes the compassion that motivates the Buddha to teach the dharma to a suffering humanity."

Swearer’s reading of wisdom having priority over compassion, while common, is both outdated and problematic. For instance it raises the obvious question, “did the Buddha not have compassion before his chat with Sahampati?” In his discussion of this question, Damien Keown (1992, The Nature of Buddhist Ethics, pp.72-76) finds that, "The Buddha's moral concern was not a consequence of his enlightenment: it preceded it and, indeed, motivated it." (p.73). This conclusion is supported by Aronson in Love and Sympathy in Theravada Buddhism and argued against by Jones, "Theravada Buddhism and Morality" (JAAR 1979).

While still a matter of some dispute, further analysis of the Buddha’s awakening suggest that these two aspects must be fully realized (in fact, complete wisdom is none other than compassion and vice versa), and that textual preference of one over another was likely for pedagogical reasons. This particular instance was likely one of many cases in which aspects of the existing Brahmanic worldview were turned in service of a new Buddhist supremacy. We could go into further depth with the usefulness and difficulties of these analyses, but for the sake of time we will now simply look at a discourse from the Pāli Canon that brings wisdom and compassion as well as ethics and meditation together into a single sphere. (the Karaniya Metta Sutta)

1. Cosmology, Frank E. Reynolds & Jonathan W. Schofer in Blackwell Companion to Religious Ethics, (2005), p.121.

2. For instance as early as F. Max Müller, see Sully, James (1891) Pessimism: A History and A Criticism, pp.37-38.

3. Famously, Pope John Paul II stated in 1994’s Crossing the Threshold of Hope that Buddhism “in large measure an ‘atheistic’ system’.” He seemed to undercut constructive Catholic-Buddhist dialogue by further pointing out that the ultimate end of man for Christians is union with God, while for Buddhists it is Nirvana (complete detachment, or a state of nothingness).

4. Swearer, “Gautama the Buddha through Christian Eyes: Buddha Loves Me! This I Know, for the Dharma Tells Me So” (BCS 19.1, 1999)